nonfiction

Book Review: Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It by Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott

Food. It’s part of all of our lives, and it’s likely that you too spend a lot of time thinking about it, preparing it, shopping for it. And if you’re a parent, it’s even more complicated, because no matter what you feed your kids, someone is out there judging you for it (give them snacks: “Why are you feeding them so much sugar? Do you WANT them to be overweight?!?!??” Give them Brussels sprouts: “OMG, don’t they ever get any fun treats?!?!??”). There are a lot of public conversations about food right now, and most of them are headed by rich white men who aren’t struggling to work and raise kids in difficult conditions. Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It by Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott (Oxford University Press, 2019) takes a hard look at WHY it’s so difficult for women, on whom the vast majority of cooking falls, to ‘just cook healthy meals at home.’ I’d been looking forward to reading this before the pandemic, and I’m so glad I was finally able to get my hands on a copy.

This research team followed a group of mothers in and around Wake County, North Carolina, to see what their lives were like and the challenges presented to them when it came to food. When food activists like Michael Pollan claim that we need to get back to the kitchen, cooking healthy homemade meals from real ingredients and sitting around the dinner table as a family, he’s not considering the struggles of women like those covered in the book. Irregular work schedules, living out of a hotel where the only cooking implements are a hotplate and a microwave, miniscule budgets, lack of transportation to the less expensive grocery stores, lack of storage space, unsupportive partners: all of these and more factor into the difficult of providing home-cooked meals, and these challenges are almost always dismissed as personal failures, instead of the societal failures that they are.

Pressure Cooker delves deep into the lives of women who universally want to provide their children with healthy, nutritious food, but face often insurmountable challenges to do so. Some are shamed openly for their poverty; others spar with their partners on what a healthy diet looks like (how often should kids have soda and other sugary treats? Dads are far more likely to hand these out than moms); still others struggle with wanting to feed their kids the foods they grew up with in their home countries, when the kids have learned to crave American foods like hot dogs and pizza. Food is a deeply complex subject, and being able to create healthy home-cooked meals is quite often an unrecognized privilege. This book examines why.

Such a fascinating read that was very much worth the wait. There are a lot of really maddening stories in here, such as the woman who was treated terribly at her county WIC office (it never ceases to infuriate me, the hoops we force people to jump through in order to perform their poverty to our liking so they can receive food. I do volunteer work that involves creating spreadsheets of services that include food pantries, and I have RAGE FOR DAYS about the dehumanizing language and requirements pantries have for their clients), and the struggling grandmother living in a hotel with her daughter and two grandchildren. We *could* do better as a society, but we actively choose not to and instead allow people to suffer. It’s shameful.

Food is so complicated, and Pressure Cooker shows exactly how, and how empty so many food activists’ arguments are. Imploring people to cook at home will not fix the deep societal problems that have people hitting the drive through or throwing a frozen pizza into the oven more nights than not (what are moms who have a several-hour commute supposed to do when they don’t even get home until 6 pm and the kids still need to eat, need help with homework, need baths? How are we supposed to live like this?), and this book is an excellent counterargument to the claims that dinner around the family table will fix all our woes.

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